The Anti-Academic’s Anti-Academic

Charles Green looks at the writing of Rebecca Schuman and finds generalizations and stereotypes perfect for those who want to bash academe, rather than understand and improve it.

September 23, 2014
 

Like many academics, I’ve almost never left school. The students who occupy my mental energy most are the worst, not the best; the interactions with colleagues I recall most immediately the harshest; the department memos that curdle in my memory are those spiced with typos. Those stories, with the whiff of gossip, earn the most laughs from my colleague-friends.

But those stories aren’t typical. They represent academe like an inset map does a region — sharpening the view of a narrow area set aside from the larger context.

When people outside academe ask me what I do, I skip those stories. Most of my students have gifted me with their intelligence; my colleagues teach and support me. I don’t want to project a naïve, Panglossian optimism about my job or about the current state of higher education, but I try to be careful and honest when I explain my work in academe to those outside it. I know the stereotypes of academe and the real threats to its future: the longstanding and growing right-wing animus against universities as liberal hives that indoctrinate unquestioning drones; the dramatic rise in the cost of higher education; the shift from tenure-protected long-term faculty to underpaid, overworked short-term faculty. (That’s not an exhaustive list.) I sympathize with resistance against academe’s entrenched problems, but when writers misrepresent those, I boil over.

Which brings me to the essays of Rebecca Schuman, an education columnist for Slate. She has a Ph.D. in German studies and a forthcoming book on Kafka, Wittgenstein, and Modernism. Despite those impressive credentials, she left academe and the crumbling job prospects of German studies in 2013, so she’s well-positioned to comment on the real crises in higher education. She even professes, in one essay, “I’m a higher-ed expert.”

While I sometimes agree with her,  I think she crafts fundamentally anti-academic arguments, anti-academic in that they rely heavily on unsourced and unsupported generality clothed in hyperbole. While she frames her essays with her expertise and experience, she presents a funhouse image of the academic world as the norm and recreates fabulist stereotypes of the ivory tower gone mad. Ultimately, her writing most often fails to offer substantive critique of academe’s problems and instead offers empty amusement that misleads readers about the world she claims to analyze with expertise.

Her July 15, 2014 essay, “Revise and Resubmit,” exemplifies her anti-academic methods. Most prominently in that essay, Schuman revels in psychologizing straw men, scarecrows who lack not brains but hearts: “Think of your meanest high school mean girl,” she writes, “at her most gleefully, underminingly vicious. Now give her a doctorate in your discipline, and a modicum of power over your future. That’s peer review.” The peer reviewer is a type with easily decipherable, easily dismissed motives.

Yes, Schuman’s being amusingly hyperbolic — I see Regina George and the Plastics of Mean Girls with their burn book, telling lesser academics “Stop trying to make ‘synecdochic heteronormativity’ happen. It’s not going to happen. It’s problematic.” If Schuman’s writing then moved to a more complex, realistic, or data-driven exploration of peer review, I might accept one hyperbolic stereotype — but the psychological profile of straw men predominates her argument. Consider the following:

1) “A thorough vetting of a new piece of scholarship is indeed crucial — but right now, rather than being constructively critical, far too many peer reviews are just cruel for no reason.”

2) “But some articles are just bad! whine the meanies, in a panic that they’ll lose their only consequence-free opportunity to express their professional misery. And yet, you can reject an article without stating, definitively, that its author has no business in the profession. I’ve done it. It’s not even the slightest bit difficult.”

3) “Sure, in an ideal situation, peer reviewers are collegial, constructive experts in the author’s sub-field with a legitimate interest in making an article better. But most situations are far from ideal: The ‘peer’ is actually a put-upon grad student or recent Ph.D., fresh off of seven years of being kicked in the gut and just aching to do some kicking of his own.”

4) “Some journal articles are accepted on their first pass. (I wrote one that was! Will you be the fourth person to read it?) Many more are rejected with extensive commentary, and more still receive a special place in academic purgatory: a directive to ‘revise and resubmit’ according to the referee’s requirements.”

5) “So many readers’ reports can be boiled down to: ‘Why wasn’t this article exactly the one I would have written?’ (Or: ‘Why wasn’t I cited enough?’) Thus, too often, academic peer review is gatekeeping for its own sake, whose chief result is to wound the author as deeply and existentially as possible.”

6) “What we need is an idea that takes advantage of, rather than battles against, academics’ petty self-interest. Luckily, the peers who review your work may think of themselves as above you in every way....”

Each example reinforces the stereotype of the peer reviewer as a petty, miserable, unreasonably cruel, self-interested meanie looking to exact metaphorical violence, a paper villain twirling his mustache. Academics produce with their guts, and they devastate with their guts. Yet somehow Schuman escaped that vicious cycle — it’s an easy stereotype to avoid, and lo and behold, she did!

Consider a different image of the peer reviewer. The job requirements of a tenure-track faculty member put reviewing academic submissions as a distant consideration. If an article submitted for peer review seems poorly written or uninformed, it’s much easier to respond, “The writing is poor” or “the author doesn’t demonstrate a sufficient knowledge of the field” than to offer a much more exhaustive and exhausting response that constructively details the changes needed to develop the essay to publication strength. If a submission (say, 8,000 words) doesn’t demonstrate adequate scholarly work, how likely is it that a single peer reviewer can make suggestions that the writer will use to significantly improve the article? Sneering at the more generous psychological profile I’ve crafted here proves harder, but I think that profile — even limited by generality as it is — more accurately reflects the peer reviewer than Schuman’s central stereotype of a thuggish villain.

One might respond that stereotypes reflect broad truths; however, do Schuman’s stereotypes do so? Based on her evidence, I’d say not. Frustratingly, she combines anecdotes with unsourced assertions of the commonality of the anecdotes she provides, claiming data without support for those claims. No doubt there are some peer reviewers who fit her stereotypes. But that’s neither representative nor reliable, failing to clear even what seems to me a low evidentiary standard.

Let’s take the most visually and substantively prominent evidence in Schuman’s essay: five tweets. (The sample tweets are larger and framed in boxes.) Schuman chose these examples as her best representative evidence. Of those five, two come from the same person, and another begins “not mine, but a friend.” So we have a limited sample — four respondents — and a thirdhand anecdote. One tweet, a respondent’s summary interpretation of the reviewers’ comments, reads, “Reviewer A: Not enough of my work here. Reviewer B: Not enough of my views here. Reviewer C: What *I* would have said is.” If we assume that the anecdote is real, a generous assumption I wouldn’t grant an undergraduate essay, can we further assume that the respondent’s interpretations are accurate without any context or evidence? We shouldn’t, but Schuman does.

Another response reads, “my fav review: called my writing ‘jejune’ because I included a beyonce reference.” That respondent is a science writer, so I can imagine contexts in which a Beyoncé reference might seem jejune. Granted, using jejune condescends. Does it exemplify cruelty, though? Given Schuman’s emphasis on the cruelty of reviewers I’d expect examples that are forcefully cruel rather than condescending.

Why can’t Twitter anecdotes demonstrate Schuman’s claim that peer review is so flawed (“broken,” as Slate’s banner has it) that it should be reformed? Considering the anxiety around academic publication, the problems with peer review may be disclosed only via quiet conversations and outlets like Twitter. First, however, consider two opposite sayings: “the plural of anecdote is data,” and “the plural of anecdote is not data.” Schuman clearly prefers the former, but I prefer the latter. So the respondents are a subset of Schuman’s Twitter followers (she has around 5,700 as of this writing), and I’d bet that the majority of responses would veer toward the negative — not necessarily because most experiences are negative in ways that reveal systemic fatal flaws, but because negative stories entertain readers more and are more likely to appear in an essay about peer review. To borrow and butcher Leo Tolstoy, happy peer-review stories are all alike; each unhappy peer-review story is unhappy in its own way.

Second, she fails to contextualize her evidence. Not only does she treat anecdote as data, she gives no sense of what those data represent. She seems not to have done basic research on the subject. My five-minute Google search found Bo‐Christer Björk and David Solomon’s “The Publishing Delay in Scholarly Peer-Reviewed Journals,” which examines the timing from submission to publication in a random sample of 2,700 papers in 135 journals across academic fields, from chemistry to arts and letters to economics. The delays, as you might imagine, vary from field to field. That reveals a problem Schuman only obliquely addresses: What is an acceptable peer-review response time? She suggests three months, which sounds great to me, but on what does she base that guess? Why would three months be optimal but not four or six? And, given the many obligations of peer reviewers and the number of submissions, is three months universally realistic?

Other crucial missing context: Do academics agree that response times are too long, as she claims? Lutz Bornmann and Hans-Dieter Daniel’s case study of the response times for a single journal cites a 2008 survey of academics in which 38 percent of respondents “were dissatisfied with peer-review times.” That percentage certainly doesn’t suggest universal frustration with the process. Even more importantly, is that dissatisfaction of 38 percent of respondents a reliable measure for how long peer review should take? I’d argue maybe not — I sometimes experience a five-minute wait in a grocery line as interminable and other times as short, depending on a number of factors: my mood, the crowd, how my other trips to the store have gone. And tenure-clock anxiety likely heightens the sense of a wait as interminable.

For what it’s worth, I also loathe the submission process, but not for the reasons she lists. I find submitting writing fundamentally frustrating because of elements inherent to that process. Finishing a draft submission offers little reward, because in this case it means “reaching a relatively acceptable but uncertain stopping point that seems to be the fullest, most complete effort I can give”; sending the work out into the world feels small because I have little or no concrete sense of what I’m competing against. Then, as soon as I’ve submitted, I realize an error or errors, major or minor, that I can’t correct for that submission. The frustration of waiting congests me intensely and irrationally early in the process. No alteration to peer review could ease these anxieties and the ways they distort my view of the process.

In addition to her limited anecdotes and unquestioned assumptions, she asserts vague commonalities without evidence. The following phrases from her essay reinforce Schuman’s sense of her mathematical certainty while undermining it: “rather than being constructively critical, far too many peer reviews are just cruel for no reason”; “most [peer-review] situations are far from ideal”; “thus, articles regularly, I’m talking almost always, languish untouched on the referee’s desk for six, 12, even 18 months” (in that quote, the italics are Schuman’s; and which is almost always — six, 12, or 18 months?); “Many more [submissions] are rejected with extensive commentary, and more still receive a special place in academic purgatory: a directive to “revise and resubmit”; “Some such suggestions are even helpful — but all too often, they’re hidden amidst the venting of petty vendettas and pettier agendas.” Far too many, most, regularly, almost always, many more, more still, too often and all too often, a lot of Schuman’s emphasis on frequency is empty hyperbole, a tactic Schuman slathers over her writing.

These anti-academic argumentative strategies demonstrate the central argumentative sin of “Revise and Resubmit” and much of Schuman’s other writing: generality. The claims of commonality without reference or specific numbers, the reliance on straw-man stereotypes, and, potentially most troubling of all, her use  of “peer review” itself: these are all frustratingly general. For “peer review” isn’t a single thing. The process and timing vary from one discipline to another as well as within disciplines, depending on the focus of the journal. Anonymous review isn’t universal; double-blind reviews are more common in the humanities than in the hard sciences. But Schuman neglects these and other basic details. Worse still, she makes those claims with the air of authority and the position of authority for Slate’s readership, of whom likely only a small portion have a working knowledge of the peer-review process. Remember, Schuman tells us, “I’m a higher-ed expert.”

Schuman seems to have envisioned her essay as a shot across the bow of the peer-review system. On her personal website, Schuman wrote that her essay “was excoriated — my biggest WTF moment of my career, since in private every academic in the world loathes peer review.” She assumes her opinion is universally shared, and she doesn’t ask why readers resisted. I’d guess they did so in part because of her method, and also in part, ironically, because of her tone: protesting the behavior of academics, she treats them as childish, cruel meanies, driven solely by “petty self-interest.”

For the broader academic world, the problems in her writing matter because of how they resemble in their method the attacks on academe from outside. To take one example, on a recent edition of Fox News Sunday, George Will asserted that those who claimed that a 97 percent consensus among climate scientists that global warming is real, a consensus drawn from thousands of peer-reviewed articles and interviews with the authors of those articles, had invented the statistic: “They pluck these things from the ether,” he said. Given Will’s larger audience and presentation of authority — in addition to his appearances on America’s televised Pravda, he writes for The Washington Post. His “pulled from the ether” lie (or, to be charitable, ignorance) has spread to conservative websites that deny climate change. Peer review may be flawed, but in a world where news outlets pose academics against uncredentialed bloggers in three-minute debates about global warming, we need to convey the purpose and value of peer review, even if we want to change it.

I don’t want Schuman to stop writing. She could represent a useful, important resistance to the limits of the academic world that must come from within the university because a reflexively defensive institution is more likely to stifle than encourage meaningful change. But her shoddy method on peer review isn’t anomalous. Recently, she inveighed on Slate against too-long course syllabuses. The subhead, oddly enough, declares that syllabuses reach 25 pages, but Schuman’s longest example is a 20-page syllabus. The 20-pager she cites (it’s mentioned, but not presented, in a Twitter response) seems like an outlier, yet she claims it’s common. Schuman later tells us, as usual without citation of any evidence, that “the average length of my academic friends’ syllabi is 15 pages.” That kind of assertion reminds me a first-year student I taught who rejected the idea that public schools were still segregated because his school was diverse: only 75 percent white, by his estimate.

As with “Revise and Resubmit,” I’d move on from her hyperbole, except for her turn to why syllabus length matters: “Syllabus bloat is more than an annoyance. It’s a textual artifact of the decline and fall of American higher education. Once the symbolic one-page tickets for epistemic trips filled with wonder and possibility, course syllabi are now but exhaustive legal contracts that seek to cover every possible eventuality, from fourth instances of plagiarism to tornadoes.” In addition to the unsourced generalization familiar from her writing on peer review — syllabi were once this, but now they are this instead — skewed nostalgia radiates from her writing: when she was a student, things were great, but now they’re awful. Syllabi were once “symbolic one-page tickets for epistemic trips filled with wonder and possibility”; given her language in that phrase, I imagine poor Charlie Bucket gifted a trip into the fantastical, mythical education chocolate factory crafted in his head by his grandfather’s stories. Of course, the golden age has faded, as they always seem to; course syllabi “are now but exhaustive legal contracts that seek to cover every possible eventuality.” The wonder has died; all syllabi are dull and dry, and all students abhor them all.

Elsewhere, in an essay supporting President Obama’s call for a universal rating standard for universities and colleges in the United States, Schuman writes, “But here’s why I still hope Obama’s plan will work. The very fact that the ratings’ most vocal detractors are college presidents — who often rake in millions while their students crumble under debt — should tell us Obama is onto something.”

Schuman doesn’t defend the specifics of Obama’s plan — she even lays out several of its major flaws — but she writes, “I say that a system that currently survives on nearly three-quarters contingent faculty labor has more than earned a sledgehammer — or at least a thorough audit from the body that’s providing a healthy percentage of its revenue.” The latter sentence might be convincing if it didn’t appear in the same essay that acknowledges “It dismays me to see that in a federal initiative to reform higher education, there is no mention whatsoever of the labor crisis that all but defines the 21st-century American university: The ever-growing dependence on barely-paid part-time adjuncts, which makes skyrocketing tuition particularly unconscionable.”

In other words, universities need accountability regarding their employment practices. Here’s a plan that doesn’t address that. Schuman supports that plan!

I appreciate Schuman’s efforts to avoid a jargon-cloaked academic tone for a snarkier critique of academia’s entrenched, encrusted bad habits as well as disturbing trends that, in my opinion, threaten higher education. But if she wants to change academe in meaningful, constructive ways, she has to engage it, just as she asks peer reviewers to do with the submissions they receive. Instead of wielding the funhouse mirror for Slate, she can reflect a more accurate image to show us our flaws. Of course, any organization as broad, complex, diverse, and hierarchical as academia could be represented with many actual images, some of which may not overlap.

The adjunct’s academe isn’t the tenured professor’s, nor is the dean’s, the undergraduate’s, the parent’s, or the custodian’s. George Will’s academia and Rebecca Schuman’s treat stereotype and the limited individual perspective as universal truth. But when one political party wants to toss higher education into the trash, and Schuman wants to wreck it with a sledgehammer, we have an obligation to know and understand academia before it’s turned to rubble.

Bio

Charles Green teaches writing as a lecturer at Cornell University, where he asks students to do bicep curls on the first day so they can lift his syllabus.

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